How to Succeed as a First-Year Attorney at a Big Law Firm
This is the third essay in a series on “Big Law” firms from the perspective of a former Big Law associate. Click here to read the first essay on how to break into Big Law. Click here to read the second essay on how to succeed as a Big Law summer associate.
So the summer is winding down and you’re coming back from your post-bar vacation in Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia. As painful as it is to return to reality, it’s time to prepare for your new life as a Big Law junior associate.
I’m sure you recognize it at this point, but let’s be clear:
Life as a junior associate isn’t even close to life as a summer associate.
You’ll work long nights and will always be on call from partners and senior associates. The stress can be extremely difficult. But that said, the monetary rewards are great, you’ll gain solid experience, and you’ll work with some insanely smart people.
I worked in Big Law for about two-and-a-half years before leaving for the world of startups. Looking back at my time in Big Law, there are some things I know now that I would have loved to have known before I became a first-year associate.
So considering that, here are some tips that I would offer to bright-eyed law school grads who are ready to kill it in Big Law.
1. Consider Your Short and Long Term Plans
It’s obvious, but you absolutely have to sit down with yourself and think about your short and long term plans. Why are you working in Big Law? What are your goals?
In fact, I’d argue that you need to do this before you begin your first day as a junior associate. Big Law can provide you with an awesome paycheck, but the golden handcuffs can tighten once you begin upgrading your lifestyle.
It can become harder and harder to leave, even if you don’t necessarily enjoy what you’re doing.
By contrast, it’s marginally easier to leave if you already recognize that you will only stay in Big Law for X number of years—or until you pay off your law school debt—before transitioning into something else.
Ask yourself: do you want to become a partner at your firm or another firm? Do you see yourself staying in Big Law for just a couple years so you can become debt-free and then try something else? Or are you simply not sure about what you want to do?
Whatever the answer, just be honest.
This isn’t like The Bachelor, where you absolutely have to be in Big Law for “the right reasons.”
Whatever your motives, keep them in mind as you’re starting off. If you’re feeling frustrated or stressed in your first year, it’ll be reassuring to know why you chose to work in Big Law in the first place. And who knows—your outlook on Big Law may change once you get your feet wet.
2. Handling the Day-to-Day Grind
This topic could be an entire essay, but here are several strategies that helped me become a faster and better junior associate.
Your strength is attention to detail: Let’s face it. Coming out of law school, most of us don’t know much about the actual practice of law. Our first year is essentially an extended training period — even clients recognize this and are increasingly refusing to pay for first-year work.
As you’re learning how to actually be a lawyer, you need to become the master of details.
This is something you can do right away: all it requires is patience and dedication.
So if you’re working on a current lawsuit, be the member of the team that knows the facts inside and out. The same goes if you’re working on a deal as a corporate associate.
I know, some of the work that you’re completing can be extremely boring. It’s even more of a challenge if you’re pulling late hours and constantly feel fatigued. But at this early stage of your career, you’ll get noticed and will bring value to the team by being the master of details.
It also goes without saying, but all of your work should be absent of typos and should include all correct citations. And absolutely don’t forget to Shepardize everything.
More matters > fewer matters: The question that I and other first-year associates would often ask is how many matters to take on.
This is a tough question. Sure, you can say no to a partner requesting your assistance on a project, but this will probably cause long-term damage. Partners and senior associates will see you as less reliable and less of a team player.
My general advice is that too much work is better than too little work.
You want to be put on matters that have a long shelf life and where you are given a good amount of responsibility. It’s obviously difficult to project these factors, but that is the ultimate goal.
At the beginning of my Big Law career, I was lucky in that I was the only associate working with two partners on a new lawsuit. The partners trusted me and gave me a good amount of responsibility, even letting me argue a minor procedural point in court. If possible, you should aim for these types of opportunities.
Having said all of this, there may come a point where you’re inundated with projects.
For instance, a partner may barge into your office and say a project needs to be completed “ASAP,” even though a different partner on another matter told you the same thing ten minutes earlier.
If this is the case, you need to take action, and the most important thing here is communication.
Describe your workload to both partners and the fact that you have conflicting, imminent deadlines. Be totally upfront with your ability (or inability) to complete the tasks on time. If necessary, the partners will have to work it out amongst themselves or seek out additional help.
Mind your billable hours: As you begin at your firm, you should understand how many billable hours you’ll need to receive your annual bonus. Once you know the total number, divide it by twelve so that you know how many billable hours you need per month.
This will be especially helpful during your first year (since your bonus will be prorated depending on your firm’s fiscal year), but it’s useful to have a benchmark for every month going forward.
You want to constantly audit yourself to see if you’re on track. And yes, this means entering your time within 48 or 72 hours (your partners will thank you).
If you’re not on track, you need to find work sooner rather than later.
While many of your peers will be scrambling to find billable work just weeks before the end of your firm’s fiscal year, you can avoid this stress by ensuring that you’re on track throughout the year. Better to be proactive and eclipse the threshold by a large margin than panic at the end of the year.
But along with this, recognize that the work typically ebbs and flows. For as much as we want to smooth out our workflow, it doesn’t work like that.
It’s often feast or famine.
If you’re on a few matters that are temporarily at a lull, perhaps walk around your floor and notify your colleagues that you’re willing to help.
The worst case scenario is having little current work while everyone else is busy, yet partners don’t need your assistance on their matters. If this is the case, you’ll need to get on some project, any project, ASAP, even if it’s a pro bono project.
Treatises are your friend: Finally, I can’t stress this enough: treatises can make your life drastically easier as you’re completing research projects. I was old school and consulted actual books in my firm’s library (also to minimize Lexis costs), but do whatever works best for you.
Ultimately, there’s too much to know in too little of time. Use treatises as a crutch in order to get up to speed on some of the most basic law in your practice area. From there, you’ll be able to advance and find the law that is most applicable to your facts.
3. Recognize that Mid-Level Associates, Senior Associates, and Partners are Your Clients
Even though this is similar to my second point, I’m making it a totally separate point.
It’s that important.
In your first year, your clients are mid-level associates, senior associates, and partners. By pleasing them, you are pleasing your firm’s clients by proxy.
Speaking from experience, I didn’t have much client contact in my first year. Sure, I attended conference calls with clients and would occasionally meet them in face-to-face meetings.
But I spent most of my time communicating and working with associates and partners. They are the ones you need to impress every day.
How do you do this? You impress them by completing solid work, managing their expectations, and maintaining open communication channels.
You need to know the ins and outs of any case law that you’ve pulled and how the law applies to your facts. It’s also critical to present your conclusions in a concise and confident manner. Bonus points if you had any clinical experience in law school, as you can use that experience as a baseline when you’re starting out.
But what happens if you don’t know what to do or if you’re stuck?
It can be extremely frustrating and it happens more often than you may think.
If you’re stuck, you need to find help. Now I’m not saying that you need to constantly email your supervising associate or partner if you come across a question on your matter. They are busy and you don’t want to come across as being overly annoying.
But if you’re unclear about any aspect of your assigned project, you absolutely need to escalate your concerns to an associate or partner.
Sit down with them, explain what you’ve done so far, where you’re stuck, and importantly, how you think you can overcome the roadblock. Show your supervisor that you’ve thought about ways to find your answer instead of simply going up to them and asking for further instructions.
Also, ensure that you’re bringing all of your questions at once to your supervisor rather than asking them piecemeal questions. It’s more efficient and they will thank you for it.
As an aside, it’s also critical to be clear on how many billable hours that your partner expects on a discrete research project. If you’re billing too much time, clients will complain, and it will cause headaches for your partner. Just reach out to partners if you feel like you’re approaching a threshold but still need more time to research.
Ultimately, the operative word here is communication. Don’t inundate your supervisors with emails or calls, but make sure they are aware of your progress on your projects. If you think of treating them like your clients, you’ll do well.
4. Take Ownership of Your Career
In Big Law, it’s not impossible to come in, do your work, reach your minimum billable hour threshold, and then repeat next year.
I’m not saying you can coast—Big Law is challenging and the job requires much of your time. But if you just want to be an “average” Big Law attorney and stay put for just a couple years, you can do that.
Sure, you’ll eventually reach a crossroads where you’ll either be eligible for partnership or will be essentially forced to move on. But you can still last quite awhile, as long as you adequately complete your work and don’t quit.
The reality, however, is that it’s absolutely critical to take ownership of your career.
This goes back to the first point—what are your goals?
If your goal is to become a partner at your firm, you need to establish the foundation right now. Make yourself known not only within your practice group but within the firm itself. Find mentors outside your firm’s mentorship program. Think about working with a partner to publish articles, but acknowledge that you should keep this non-billable work to a minimum. While it may be a little too early, consider joining one of your firm’s committees in the near future.
You want to be known as a dedicated associate who (1) does a great job with your work, (2) hits your minimum billable hours count every year, and (3) has a genuine interest in contributing to the firm outside of your normal role.
On the flip side, there’s nothing wrong if you don’t envision yourself staying at the firm for your entire career. Just acknowledge this fact and take ownership so that you can prepare for your next steps.
If you want to eventually transition out of Big Law and become an in-house attorney, that’s great! Try to attend networking events and meet as many in-house attorneys as you can.
If you want to transition out of Big Law and try something completely different—as I currently am—that’s OK too. Just work on saving as much money as you can, networking with individuals outside the legal industry, and planning your escape.
All of this is assuming that you’ll continue to deliver great work. This is an absolute requirement even if you won’t stay at your firm forever. You’ll want to leave your firm in the good graces of your colleagues, no matter what you do.
And this segues into the last point for this section:
Don’t lose the connections you’ve made in law school.
Many older attorneys regret that they’ve failed to maintain these relationships, not only for personal reasons but because law school classmates can become future clients.
Don’t make this same mistake. Keep in touch with your classmates, whether it’s through LinkedIn or even through annual coffee meetings. You never know where you (or your friends) will be in the next ten or twenty years.
5. Don’t IgnoreYour Physical and Mental Health
You probably know by now, but Big Law life isn’t necessarily great for your health.
It’s a difficult subject to discuss and it could also result in a separate essay.
But for the sake of simplicity, just recognize that as a Big Law associate, you must pay very close attention to your physical and mental health.
As for your physical health, it’s surprisingly easy to prioritize your work over physical health. You can order Seamless for every meal and find an excuse to avoid exercise if you’ve pulling all-nighters at the office.
So how do you handle these challenges?
First, I’d highly recommend developing a daily workout routine, whether it’s a quick run, lifting weights, or even yoga. If you have to wake up early to do this, so be it. By making this investment in the morning, you’ll feel better and will ultimately be more productive for the day.
Along with this, mind your diet. I’m not saying you can’t snack or eat desserts; rather, make an extra effort to avoid foods that will reduce your energy or will make you feel like garbage one hour later.
Next, think about asking your firm if they can provide you with a standing desk. Regardless of whether sitting is the new smoking, I think it can be a good way to increase your energy throughout the day.
Finally, if you feel like you have a problem with alcohol or drug abuse, get help. You’re not alone and it shows massive courage to recognize that you have a problem and that you need help.
Mental health is an entirely different matter. I don’t feel qualified to speak about this that much.
That said, it’s clear that many Big Law lawyers struggle with their mental health. Anxiety and depression are common.
Partners (and clients) can be demanding, and as a first-year associate, you’re at the bottom of the ladder.
My advice would be (1) don’t take criticism personally; (2) seriously consider a regular meditation practice, and (3) get help if you need it.
Not everyone can deal with the mental pressure and that’s OK. Big Law isn’t for everyone and it absolutely does not mean that you won’t be successful doing something else. There’s no shame in realizing that this isn’t for you.
As you’re just starting out, recognize that you’re about to work in a challenging environment where you’re always expected to be on call. At this point in your career, you’re being paid more for your availability than your ability.
If you aren’t happy with how your life is going, you need to seriously consider leaving. It simply isn’t worth it if you’re going to work sad, depressed, or discouraged about your future.
Best Of Luck
You’re about to embark on a journey that can be exciting, yet nerve-wracking at the same time.
Still, you can calm those nerves and maximize your odds of success if you (1) recognize your goals, (2) handle your day-to-day work, (3) treat associates and partners like your clients, (4)take ownership of your career, and (5) mind your health.
I wish you the best of luck! If you have any questions about Big Law life, don’t hesitate to contact me.